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Magic's Effect on Politics

Discussion in 'World Building' started by trentonian7, Nov 14, 2015.

  1. trentonian7

    trentonian7 Troubadour

    In many high fantasy settings, traditional martial rule is passed down from son to son and the political systems are largely the same as they were in ancient times. However, many of these settings often include beings of magical power, wizards, mages, etc, though of course with varying potency. What I'm wondering is, in any setting where they do have a fair ammount of power, how these people would sculpt the governments and political scenes of the world? I'm already accounting for various magical factions with considerable political influence in some of my worlds, but what is to stop organized wizards from completing usurping the established rule?
  2. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    If the rulers give the wizards free reign to conduct their own business, if the rulers have some type of power over the wizards in terms of items or something else the wizards need. The rulers may have the ability to cause the populous to rise against the wizards. Many of the rulers and wizards could be related/family and as such look out for each other. The rulers could have items that protect them from magic making the wizards less of a threat to them. Some wizards may never want to have political power, as such they stay as far away from anything leading down that path. Hope this sparks a few ideas.
  3. Velka

    Velka Sage

    This made me think of the Tevinter Imperium in Dragon Age. Everywhere else in the world mages are oppressed and controlled by the Chantry (well, not so much now due to the events in Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition), but in Tevinter, there is a magocracy.

    That entirely depends on how magic works in your world. K.S. Crooks gave some good ideas of how the power of magic could be balanced in your land to prevent the finger-wigglers from running amok. Magic has to have some meaningful cost or an antithesis to stop it from being an all powerful entity.
    Gurkhal likes this.
  4. danr62

    danr62 Sage

    There are a ton of ways you could go with this. In the Wheel of Time, Aes Sedai like to meddle in the affairs of nations and are regarded as a major political power. In other books, magic users are regarded with fear and hunted down. In others, they are tools of the governments.
  5. I feel like the issue you present is not properly addressed by the more conventional methods mentioned above. In many of these settings, magic is presupposed to be a part of the human condition. If that were the case then magic exists a priori to the actual creation of a government or system of government. Supposing that humans in this world are like humans in ours, which I think is a safe assumption, then we know that the people that rule are those that are the most powerful. In the beginning, that might mean those that had more physical strength. As the world progressed it became those with the most cunning and charisma. In a world where a person can bend the very fabric of the universe itself and others can't that person with the power would gain control early, since they have the most might. Once in power they will generally hold power unless a countervailing circumstance takes power from them. This would be revolution or conquer.

    So we see that they will likely hold power until such time that they lose it. Which means first that a non-magic entity needs to take the political power from the wizard-rulers. So now we have to ask the question how this would happen. First, a wizard ruler would not make a trinket that could take his power from him unless he had to in order to control the other wizards he has under his rule. However, this means that the wizard would build in fail safes that require magic users to activate and manipulate the trinket. No one would knowingly invent a device that could imprison that individual.

    Revolution may work, but the problem is masses will not be enough. First, the wizard is in power and so will have significant control over the population, which means that the wizard would have plenty of support. There needs to be something to even the balance in favor of the revolutionaries. Either a supermajority needs to rise up OR a technology that can limit the efficacy of the magic users needs to be discovered.

    In order to avoid this, you need to change the way magic works. Government and society need to be a priori to the use and discovery of magic. By making magic arise after the rise of government you simplify the issue by having the government control the wizards since these people will still have an inclination to follow their government.
  6. trentonian7

    trentonian7 Troubadour

    This was a perfect response, I made many of the same conclusions that magic users would likely form the earlier governments. While I appreciate your counter, I don't believe in my particular world magic came far enough after civilization for wizards to be simple subjects or to sit quietly. That being said, I'm considering another approach: there is no guarantee that magic will manifest itself in heirs or that heirs will maintain the same ammount of power as their parents; so while a ruling family might have magical power and hereditary rights, at one point or another, their ruling member is bound to be powerless, which could introduce the idea of mundane rule to a society, especially if that ruler has a magical family behind him. Furthermore, I imagine magical families would help to mantain the balance; much like a Cold War, their political jockeying and rival powers could help keep the country in check.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I'm going to stick with the traditional high fantasy pseudo-medieval setting, as if we have to consider every form of government I'll need about fifty posts. I can start with some generalizations, though.

    1. Government involves three key components: law, taxes, and an army (some form of coercive power).
    2. Government is, for the most part, boring.

    Take a look at those three components. What wizard is going to want to oversee tax collection? Or to try to manipulate trade? What wizard is gung-ho on jurisprudence or to spend the day arguing cases in court? All the talk about magical power is mostly about that third component, but it's by far not the most important. Wizards would likely have a major effect on warfare, as has been discussed on Scribes, but that doesn't mean much for the exchequer or the parlement.

    Moreover, finger-waggling doesn't go as far as you might think. Most medieval kings were not in power because they were the most powerful. They were in power because they were in power. A whole cultural system put them there because they were their daddy's son, regardless of their own skills, for societies tend to value continuity over competence. A wizard might arm-wave his way to the throne, but the first thing he's going to do is try to arrange things so Sonny Boy inherits, magic hat or not.

    Other possibilities offer. A cabal of wizards might rule, and they merely co-opt members as needed. It might work like the Holy Roman Emperors, being elected from a somewhat restricted field of candidates; you'd need only to mage Wizard part of the job description. Another possibility might be along the lines of tribal chiefs, in which the current ruler can always be challenged to combat.

    But all of this presumes that just because I have magical powers, I necessarily will lust after political power, but I don't see it that way. I see magicians as having the same range of human longings as any other human. I might want to be a scholar or a recluse. I might be a madman. I might hate my powers and try to hide them. There are lots of possibilities. That still leaves *some* wizards aiming to topple kings, so there's room for everyone. But I don't see it as necessitating wizard rule everywhere.
    arboriad, Ban and Creed like this.
  8. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I could see wizards trying to further their interests with 'charm' spells and similar magic's, but as Skip pointed out, get right down to it, most aspects of government are boring.

    I took a different approach in my world. People who can use magic makes those who can't uneasy. Might toss a coin to the market illusionist or visit a magical healer if need be, but while wizards are tolerated, they are not truly accepted. The Church capitalizes on this alienation, preaching loudly and often that magical talent is a god given gift and those who have it need to serve God. Those in the orders are effectively cloistered, cut off from most outside contact, trotted out for healing, protective wards, or some such. Those mages outside clerical orders - about a third of the total - are subject to intrusive church control - especially if they show any interest in governance or come from an aristocratic family.
  9. Creed

    Creed Sage

    Not only is governance boring, it is also known to be a thorny crown, and a clever mage would probably avoid it like the plague unless they were incredibly powerful (in which case they might simply opt for the god-king option). The easier route for magic users is to manipulate the system they're in for their benefit. That could include charming people, or magical coercion, or the principle of a worker strike whereby magic users withhold their magical talent.

    That latter threat is particularly effective in one of my worlds where the sole magical institution, the Academy, has become fully integrated into the imperial economy. Because they are so invaluable, the state has to pay the Academy an exorbitant amount of money (like 30% of their taxes).

    As for what may be an actual obstacle to takeover, there are a few good examples in popular fantasy, but the world of Thedas best illustrates it.

    First of all, something that negates magic: in Dragon Age that would be the source of magic itself, lyrium, which Templars use to build magical immunity. Otataral ore from The Malazan book of the Fallen is cooler though.

    Second, some power held over the magic users: this could be addiction or something, but in Dragon Age these are the phylacteries, vials of blood that the Templars can use to hunt down rogue mages (and maybe harm them directly, I don't remember).

    Third is also fairly obvious, stigma: propaganda, enforced doctrine and belief systems, etc. can all make mages alienated from society, and if it comes to conflict the general populace is likely to side against the mages.
    Following this is institutionalization, which in Dragon Age is the Templars and the Circle. These institutions could be laws, courts, or heel-on-throat overlords, or whatever.

    Lastly and most importantly is the magic itself. If a mage can call down hellfire from the sky, no institution or stigma will stand in their way, and the mages will likely achieve god-king status. In Dragon Age, again, magic isn't that powerful. A large number of mages and a lot of sacrifices allowed the Tevinter Imperium to sink the Elven capital of Arlathan into the ground, but with the above restrictions in place that sort of thing requires immense planning and would likely never make it to fruition. Something like this once happened in my Universe and it led to the creation of the Academy, so then magic was institutionalized as opposed to only stigmatized, and the Academy fought the enemy mages in a clandestine war of intelligence.

    Very interesting subject, thanks OP! :cool:
    arboriad likes this.
  10. indonesiancat

    indonesiancat Dreamer

    Magicians are commonly found in the king's court as an advisor or a grand vizier a Merlin-esque character who enlighten the monarch with his wisdom. If not ( say there is a big number of wizards in the universe ) , they belong to different magical orders, brotherhoods, religious sects or simply represent the religion of the society. Here they usually have all the say on magical business, but will then be held accountable for any rogue wizards, that the anti-magic plebeans of course would attribute to the mages themselves ( like in Dragon Age ).

    A society where the magicians have all the power would be for example Dalaran in the Warcraft universe. The leaders of the society are naturally the oldest and wisest mages, with the longest, whitest beard and least sense of humor. Non-magical people are rare in this setting and since the city is magical, infrastructure and building works itself out, without the need for a working class. The matters the magocracy would have to deal with, would be more centered around sustaining their magical power rather than menial bureaucratic matters .
  11. I'm going to have to disagree with the three above me, and I will reiterate what I said above. The problem I have is that, whenever we talk about magic users it seems to be genetic or natural in some respect, not just anyone can learn it. This means that magic existed before the formulation of governments, unless there was some cataclysmic event that caused magic to exist after the formation of fairly stable governments. Magic, therefore, is what makes a man mighty, not his wit nor his strength but the fact that he can dip into the arcane. As such, initial governments will form around the wizard and the wizard will be required to protect from inside and outside threats. The wizard becomes the king. As groups of people merge they grow into cities and nations, and still around the magic users as their base of power and their leaders. Once a government is stable it will remain as it is, more or less, until someone or something causes its collapse and change. This means that no matter how boring governance is, once a wizard is king, then a wizard will remain king. The only way to change this is by shifting the balance of power away from the magical to the magical or by making magic exist after the creation of governments.

    To say that a wizard would be bored with governance is also a bit naive. People are interested in power. Wizards are people and they have power over magic, but why not have power over people as well. Why is it necessary for a wizard to want to dabble with power when he can just have it. This is especially true, again, when magic exists before governments are stable. Now then, if magic is found after the wise ruler will either eradicate magic or make magic a part of his power structure. That's when you will find the manipulative viziers with hypnotic snake staffs or the wise and bearded wizards turning into germs and infecting Mad Madam witches. In order to make someone loyal one needs to make them a part of the society in some way. Further, the wise leader would, in my estimation, also play on the loyalties that a person inherently feels, generally speaking, to their society.
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Well no, not necessarily. Unless mages are also immortal, the death of any mage-king will bring about the end of the rule of magic, unless the fantasy world includes many mages of great power so that another can step up immediately upon the death of the first.

    But there again, with multiple mages you have another problem. They might not want to share power. The first could have spent the resources of government, as well as his own magical powers, hunting down and destroying all possible rivals.

    And you really don't know whether some rival faction of mages might themselves institute "non-magical governance" as an antidote to the totalitarian rule of one mage, essentially eliminating the possibility of such rule–essentially, a NGO of mages.

    The problem is this:

    Government, especially in the early stages, depends on monopoly of power. With only one mage with any substantial power, his mortality automatically reduces the likelihood of a very long rule. With multiple mages of great power, the monopoly of power ceases to exist.
  13. Creed

    Creed Sage


    I don't disagree with you, and in fact the Dragon Age Universe actually blends some of the concepts presented in my post with those in yours. Magic on Thedas was given to humans of antiquity through the Old Gods, who communicated with Dreamers. Thus a few gifted people could manipulate the Fade and work magic. They accumulated power in various ways, eventually leading to the magocracy of the Tevinter Imperium. None of that conflicts with your argument.

    However, things turned sour for them. Naturally they faced opposition from within and without (Chantry, Qunari/Kossith, and whoever wanted freedom), and after the bloodiest wars of Thedosian history the Tevinter Imperium was left as a fraction of its former glory and partitioned into new nations, etc. This led to the rise of stigma and institutions, and outside the Imperium mages can't get the power you're describing anymore. That was the natural progression of history in Thedas and it created societies that sought to control mages and never let mages control them. Notably, the doctrine of the Qun which dates from before their arrival on Thedas is intensely magi-phobic (Thaumophobic? Rhabdophobic?). Little is known about their past, but the Qun was founded in a time of immense destruction (and in all likelihood that included magical destruction).

    Again, I don't disagree with you, but I also don't agree because we can't make a statement without knowing the full context of the world. The source/limitations/forms/frequency of the magic is crucial to how it interacts with society. Also the society itself, racial physiology, nature of/lack of divinity, etc. If blood magic didn't exist in Thedas things would have been radically different and maybe the world would still be under some type of magocracy. Both perspectives are important to address.

    I'd also like to point out that I called governance "a thorny crown, and a clever mage would probably avoid it like the plague unless they were incredibly powerful (in which case they might simply opt for the god-king option)." I believe that with a small number of mages and a whole lot of power, they would follow your model to the letter. But I also believe that someone would contest them, and we pretty much all look for conflict on Mythic Scribes to drive the story. Maybe they take power, but nothing is permanent...

    That's when the list from my previous post proves especially relevant.
  14. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I sort of played with the idea of a magician's government in a story of mine. It was also the only setting I have ever done where magic was, in any way, common.

    First off, magic is taught and everyone is capable of learning. Some people may be more apt for magic than others. But no one is inherently excluded from it.

    Second off, the generally viewpoint of the setting was that everyone, first and foremost, wanted wealth. If anyone were to misuse or abuse their magic powers, it would be in the service to gaining wealth - not power.
    As a result, most ideologies viewed magic as a resource. Some people are very smart, some are very eloquent, some can launch fireballs, some own a plot of land and so forth. At the end of the day, how much political power you get is mostly dependent on how much money you can get.

    The ideology which stated that the existence of magic users would change politics in a significant way was called "manacracy".
    The only overtly manacratic nation was organized in a very feudal structure. A teacher will have a group of students and the families of those students would be indebted to the teacher (the mage-lord). The families would pay the mage-lord a tax/tuition and follow his or her rules (or else the student is expelled). And the mage-lord (plus students), with all their destructive powers would deal with whatever threats endanger the families.
    Once the student had finished their education, they can accept students and act as the mage-lord to a different group of families. Thus you have a clear hierarchy of mage-lords, their students and their students' students.

    There was an attempt at a "magepublic" at one point in the setting. The 10% of the population who knew magic were the only ones deemed fit to participate in the higher levels of government. Eventually, to better secure their positions, the government began to heavily regulate the teaching of magic. Eventually the 10% became 5%, then 1% and then 0.1%. Pretty soon, there weren't enough mages to defend themselves from the angry citizens complaining about corruption and oppression.

    I should probably point-out that this setting was mostly a satire about the depiction of politics and economics in fantasy.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2015
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Politics and empires are one thing, but I think about the smaller stuff. For example, would you ever throw dice with a mage? Would I trust a magician bartender? Would I keep a wizard out of the birthing room or invite one in?

    On the opposite side, if I had (natural) magical abilities, would I pretend to be normal and just game the system? Would I hire out as a freelance mercenary? Would I decide the current mage-king is a ninnyhammer and foment revolution, but my candidate isn't me but is my buddy who is clever and would make a good king? There are way more interesting scenarios than boring old world domination.

    I also have to take issue with Brian's taking issue with the issue that was taken with the original premise. (What'd he say?) War chiefs rise to power based on brute strength, and I total agree that early magicians would become that. But ruling a polis is rather more complex, which is why most developed systems had more than just a monarch ruling absolutely. They had gears within gears, committees and sub-committees, and unless you're going to posit that a good half the population are all wizards, you'd have to try to figure out just where your mage is going to put his shoulder to the wheel. Marshal of the Horse? Keeper of the Exchequer? Titular (but often figurehead) king?

    Now I think about it, it might be an interesting exercise to come up with a society in which *everyone* was a magician. I know it's been done, but the form of government might be interesting. For that matter, so would the economic system, the religion, all of it. ... Nah, too complicated for me. Someone else can have an at-bat on that one.
  16. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    Beat me to it. :)

    It was well done in DA2.
  17. indonesiancat

    indonesiancat Dreamer

    That's a good point and it wouldn't be surprising if tribal cultures were more or less ruled by the shamans and other gifted. However, in most magical settings there are counterweights to magic, for instance, non-magic users being able to acquire unrealistic strength, durability and combat prowess. Then there is also magical weapons and armours that could more or less nullify magic completely.
  18. glutton

    glutton Inkling

    Brian's posts seem to suggest that the magic user will always have more personal power/formidability than a non-magic user, in most of my stories the best nonmagical warriors tend to be as formidable or moreso than the best magic users due to Unrealistic Warrior Beastmode.
  19. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    You're working under a couple of assumptions here...
    1) You assume that magic is primarily an inherent trait. In most settings I've seen with magic, magic users need to learn magic and the most powerful mage is almost always the most educated. As such, political power would be dependent on both a mage's natural ability as well as their access to education. I assume the latter would be important as an uneducated mage is just unrealized potential.

    2) You imply that intelligence and physical strength cannot match magical ability. Haven't you seen Conan the Barbarian? A warrior can be completely capable of overpowering a mage.

    3) You assume that the magic of the setting is the most efficient means of defense. This could be the case but I don't think you can say that that's how it is all the time.

    I believe - and I guess this can be debated - that power is always a means to an end. If people seek power it is for the sake of fulfilling some kind of need. Superficially, it can be money or security. And on a deeper level, it can be moral fulfillment (wanting to get into politics to help people whether than pursuing personal gain) or social esteem.

    I think it's too simplistic to say "if a person has access to destructive power, they'll immediately use it to take control of others".
    Creed likes this.
  20. Snowpoint

    Snowpoint Sage

    Here is one problem not being addressed: If your time 24/7 is dominated by statecraft, how do you make time for Magic? Consider the possibility that being a magic-user requires certain obligations of the individual to preform certain rituals, or to maintain a certain state-of-mind.

    In the same way an athlete must train his body everyday to remain an athlete, so to a mage might Need regular maintenance to maintain his power or status.

    The mage has to time for the Government because his obligations to the supernatural. He is an adviser, helpful or harmful as he may be. Why be the King when you can tell the King what to do? The mage's status and freedom are secured by his power. If the mages are unhappy with the government, they can just leave.

    Not every mage in Fantasy is the same, but this is one way of looking at it.
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